Practically speaking, the only way to get to Sapelo Island is by boat. And someone there has to know you’re coming.
Most visitors take the 30-minute state-run ferry from Darien, Ga., but you can’t even board without proof that someone on the island is expecting you—either a state representative or a private resident.
Only 44 people live on the island now, says Cornelia Bailey, a lifelong resident who runs and owns its only small convenience store.
And with only about 20 to 60 visitors on an average day, visitor center manager Bill Merriman says there are only about 100 to 120 people on the 16,500-acre island at any one time.
Sapelo Island is an unspoiled paradise, where nature and history are preserved.
I’ve visited Sapelo three times, and find it a fascinating place. Walking the beach at low tide one recent day, I didn’t see a soul in either direction. Just the Atlantic Ocean and vast expanses of beach dotted with shells, large pieces of driftwood and skittering shore birds.
Located about 60 miles south of Savannah, Sapelo is one of Georgia’s Sea Islands, and most of its residents are Geechee, direct descendants of enslaved people from the West African coast. Sea Island cotton, corn and sugar cane were once grown on plantations there, and after the Civil War freed slaves established several settlements.
Many were employed by Howard Coffin, founder of the Hudson Motor Company, after he bought all the land not owned by former slaves in 1912. He cultivated fields, raised cattle and entertained highbrow guests in his mansion, including Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds bought Sapelo in 1933, and while continuing agricultural projects, and creating a game preserve, he consolidated all the Geechee committees into Hog Hammock, the only one that still exists.
Reynolds “employed everybody,” Merriman says, and when he died in 1964 “job opportunities dried up” and many people left. The state bought the island from Reynolds’ widow, and before his death Reynolds donated 1,500 acres of land to the University of Georgia for a Marine Institute.
The island today is mostly state owned and managed, and the western perimeter is the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Preserve. The historic mansion, now called Reynolds Mansion, is a state park that is open for tours and also available for group rentals as a small conference center.
The state has a small private airport, but most visitors begin their day at the mainland visitor center. After arriving via ferry to the 11-mile-long island, many take guided van tours that visit Hog Hammock, the Reynolds Mansion, Nanny Goat Beach, the University of Georgia Marine Institute and a restored 1820 lighthouse. Tours are offered by residents and the state.
Overnight group accommodations are available at Reynolds Mansion, and individuals and families can arrange to stay at Cabretta Campground or in privately owned homes. The visitor center has a list of names and phone numbers of residents who provide private tours, accommodations, and bike and golf cart rentals. They will meet you at the dock. Arrangements must be made in advance, and cannot be done online, Merriman says.
Sapelo Island is a destination unlike any other, and since the ferry is only $5 round trip, a very affordable one.
“The main thing is for individuals to do their homework, to find out what’s available,” Merriman says. Don’t just “show up” and expect to get on the boat.
Must Do: Tour The Reynolds Mansion and explore its grounds
Must Bring: Plenty of food and water, there is only one small convenience store on the island
Don’t Miss: The historic Sapelo Island lighthouse
The Sapelo Island Visitor Center is located at 1766 Landing Rd., Darien, Ga., 31305. For information about hours, the ferry, tours and accommodations, call 912-437-3224 or visit sapelonerr.org or gastateparks.org. Private resident JR Grovner gives tours, call 912-506-6463, or visit toursapelo.com.